Montana Skiing Decisions? Choose Wisely, Grasshopper.


If you, like me, have SSLS (Split Ski Loyalties Syndrome), you faced a lot of choices last week: Hit the ski area? Head for the backcountry? Break out the cross-county boards? Do some skate skiing?

I’ve had fun this week debriefing friends on how they took advantage of the “Big Winter Storm of 2012”.

The stories I heard ranged from post-holing in the rain to ripping Big Pow at Snowbowl, from cross-country skiing around town to staying home and watching football.

What to do, what to do?

On MLK weekend, while the valley was still brown and dry, I headed north to the Mission foothills and found surprisingly good backcountry powder. It turns out that a storm had skirted just north of town, depositing 6″- 8″ of light snow on a firm base. The result was two surprisingly good days of skiing.

Thursday, the first day of the big storm. I decided to take a cross-country ski up the Rattlesnake. Why? The days when we have cold, dry snow that is easy to wax for are fairly rare here in Missoula. The days we can ski good snow, alongside an incredible mountain stream like Rattlesnake Creek are priceless.

My choice was rewarded with a delightful ski on trails nicely groomed by the Missoula Nordic Ski Club.


My Rattlesnake experience produced such a rush of endorphins that I chose to repeat it. The snow was a little heavier, but the skiing was still great. I drove to the trailhead, while some friends skied right from their Rattlesnake home to the ski trails and beyond. Is this a great town or what?

Saturday. This decision was a bit dicey. The forecast called for rain. My choice? Go on a previously-scheduled a backcountry ski tour with friends.

At 10:00 a.m., it was spitting rain, but the four of us decided to go for it. Long story short, we got soaked as we climbed through snow like mashed potatoes. Part way on our ascent, the clouds lifted and the rain stopped.

We continued climbing and our clothes and gear dried out a bit. Our descent was surprisingly good. The wet snow sat on a firm base and made for some sweet turns. We got some good exercise, made some nice turns, and had some good views. Not a bad way to spend a marginal weather day.

Sunday. The day dawned cold and clear. I knew that yesterday’s wet snow would be frozen hard and crusty. I hadn’t skate skied at Pattee Canyon since before Thanksgiving and I was jonesing to go. I pulled the trigger, got up early in the morning and hit the trails.

I found the ski club’s groomer Steve (AKA, Merlin the Magician) working to bust up the hard ski surface. Perfect timing for me, I followed the groomer for a few laps of really fast but manageable skating as the sun came up and the day dawned blue.

Back at work on Monday, I basked in the glow a great week of skiing.

For me, making the most of winter requires some flexibility in the choice of gear and a willingness to take some chances with the weather. My ski choices don’t always turn as well as they did last week, but when they do, it makes my decision to make Missoula my home very, very worthwhile.



Read more posts from Mark about Missoula’s myriad ski choices: The Rewards and Dangers of Backcountry Skiing and Cross-Country and Nordic Skiing in and around Missoula.

Visit the Ski It Missoula archives. Visit the Ski it, Missoula archives for more powdery goodness.


Mark Vosburgh is a fourth-generation Montanan from Boulder and a 26-year resident of Missoula. He’s worked as a chemical engineer, backcountry ski guide, and wildfire scientist. He plays in several local bluegrass bands and enjoys the usual assortment of Missoula’s great outdoor opportunities. Check out the Ski It Missoula archives for more ski posts by Mark and more local skiers.